Co-hosts Harris Wittels and Scott Aukeman had an interesting debate about showmanship on a recent episode of their podcast Analyze Phish. The episode was going to be them discussing recordings they had made at a Phish concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and there were going to be a handful of ‘surprise’ guest stars that met them at the show. At the very start of the episode Wittels listed everyone who showed up on the tapes and Aukerman balked because he wanted the guests to be revealed with dramatic flair. Wittels didn’t see the point in treating it like a secret. After all, he argued, the episode description that would pop up when you downloaded the show would have all the names in it already, so no one was going to be surprised. Why bother?
I was thinking about that interaction a lot when I was watching Devil’s Pass, because Devil’s Pass is a found footage film. Now, the found footage genre is theoretically as wide open as any other genre, but the truth is that most of them are depressingly predictable. At this point audiences have been trained to expect that there won’t be any action at all in the first half of the movie, and then at some arbitrary point a switch will get flipped and it will be all horror all the time. (Devil’s pass doesn’t have any interesting developments until minute 54 of a movie that’s about 100 minutes long.) They withhold the action that we know is coming, and while it could feel like they are building suspense, most of the time it feels like they are wasting our time before we get to the good stuff.
The purpose of withholding all of the action is probably to help ground the film in a realistic world. After all, one of the original goals of the genre was to make horror seem more realistic - all of the hand held shots were supposed to look like they were filmed by real people, and the cinematic language was supposed to remind us of documentaries. The problem is that we already know this is a horror film, and we know it’s not real. Since I don’t believe in any sort of witch, or ghost, or monster, or whatever, the extra attempt at realism actually works counter to what the movie wants. If you present what I’m seeing as fiction I’ll suspend my disbelief to have a better viewing experience, but if you insult my intelligence and try to swindle me into thinking that all of this is true I’m going to have my defenses up. Since I’m not going to buy that this is reality, you might as well cut back on all the ‘real-world’ scenes which are filler before we get to the unreality of the monster.
Genre filmmakers have to know that their audience has expectations about what they are going to see, and they have to know that there’s a tricky balance between giving them what they want and making them earn it. You want to build the suspense till it’s unbearable before you release it. The problem is that if you aren’t good at building characters that will create tension with each other then found footage movies almost never have tension in them; there’s no way to cut away from what the characters know, so if they don’t know there’s a monster waiting around the corner there aren’t that many effective way to establish what the stakes are before the action takes them by surprise. If there are no established stakes then there’s no suspense and it’s just a bunch of boring people talking. And if a movie is just boring people talking for an hour the question isn’t “when is the action I was promised going to start happening?” it’s “how much of this am I going to take before I quit?”
Winner: The Cat